Lou Piniella, the Yankees' hardy perennial of a hitter, is constantly perfecting his craft, even when he's not in the batting cage. He can scarcely walk past a mirror without assuming his stance and surveying his reflection with a critical eye—and a little admiration.
When the Yankees need a man to beat a lefthanded pitcher, they call on Piniella. He's like a character actor: a handsome, dark-eyed equivalent to Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet, who swings from the right side. Nobody does his shtick better, but Sweet Lou will never be the straw that stirs the drink.
Piniella is an extremely cordial and unaffected guy who wears his 39 years easily. That he has survived nine years with the Yankees should qualify him for a gold watch. Not only has he been able to ride out the team's frequent clubhouse storms, but as a hitter he's also smart and skillful enough to have discovered that a righthanded "place" hitter can flourish in cavernous Yankee Stadium. In fact, Piniella adapted his style to the ball park.
Since his arrival from Kansas City in 1974, Piniella has batted .296 with the Yankees, and except for the 1975 season, when an inner-ear infection nearly ended his career, he has never hit less than .277 with New York. Through last week he was batting .318 this season as a righty DH and occasional rightfielder and .381 with runners in scoring position.
Piniella plays with an intense drive, all the while wearing the slightly deceptive smile of a three-card monte player on 42nd Street. He's a longtime favorite of Yankee fans, whose chants of "Looouuu, Looouuu" when Piniella comes to the plate make Yankee Stadium sound like milking time at a dairy.
Before taking his swings, Piniella pulls on his shirt sleeves, rocks back and forth and, at the last moment, pounds his helmet with the heel of his hand as if to give himself balance. He has a slightly closed stance, with his butt sticking out and left elbow aimed at the pitcher. The stance bears the imprimatur of no less an authority than Charley Lau, the patron saint of the lateral weight shift.
Piniella has been spreading some hitting gospel of his own lately. On Aug. 24, owner George Steinbrenner moved Joe Pepitone, who had become the Yankee batting coach only 11 weeks before, to the front office and named Piniella the unofficial hitting instructor.
As a youth in Tampa, Piniella, whose father was born in Spain, sharpened his eye by hitting bottle caps with a broomstick. Perhaps he should've used a bat and ball, because early in his professional career Piniella was an outfielder of modest credentials. He played seven years in the minors with six different major league organizations. He was bought, sold, optioned and traded more times than a tanker full of spot-market oil.
He got his first major league at bat, with the Orioles, late in the 1964 season. He pinch-hit for Robin Roberts and grounded out. "Hell, kid," Roberts said, "even I could've done better than that." Four years later he made his second big league plate appearance, as a pinch hitter for Cleveland, but made another out. He was still officially a rookie in 1969 when he had a .282 average in a full season with the expansion Royals and was named Rookie of the Year.
Piniella's success is the result of hard work: His baseball career is practically a hymn to the work ethic. He once had a reputation for being a mediocre fielder, but he's pretty good now, having worked almost as long and hard at that aspect of the game as he has at his beloved hitting. On the bases the only thing he lacks is speed, but he makes up for that with baseball smarts.